german 2It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of the ‘war to end all wars’, and there have been a spate of books published this year looking at all aspects of World War One. I add a fictional element with The German Agent, a thriller set in Washington, DC, in 1917. Though the war had raged in Europe, the Middle East, and even parts of Africa for three years, the U.S. did not join in hostilities until 1917. The German Agent provides background to how we got involved in the international stage and is also a good, old-fashioned thriller in the style of Ken Follett.

The German Agent is available in England at the end of  September, and coming to the U.S. market in January, 2015. First a quick blurb, and please read on for a post on the inspiration for the book:

A ruthless German spy is torn between love and duty in this powerful espionage thriller

February, 1917. A lone German agent is dispatched to Washington to prevent the British delivering a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson – by any means possible. For this is the Zimmermann telegram: it contains a devastating piece of news which is sure to bring the USA into the war on the side of Britain and her allies.

Having fought in the trenches himself, Max Volkman knows that America’s involvement will only prolong the slaughter of innocents and is implacable in his determination to kill the British envoy carrying the telegram. But when his pursuit of the Englishman leads him to the home of American heiress Catherine Fitzgerald, wife to one of Washington’s most powerful politicians, he is presented with a terrible choice: loyalty to his comrades in the trenches or the loss of the one woman he has ever truly loved.

His decision will determine the outcome of the First World War.

The German Agent was inspired by two documents: a 1917 telegram sent from zimmermannGermany to Mexico, and a work of historical re-creation written four decades later. This is the story of that dual inspiration:

“Make war together, make peace together.”

That was the crux of a telegram sent in January 1917 by Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington, D.C. What Zimmerman offered was a chance for Mexico to reclaim its lost territories in the American Southwest, simply by allying with Germany in the event that the United States declared war against the Central Powers–hardly a remote possibility, as Germany was set to recommence its unrestricted submarine warfare in a matter of weeks.

In other words, Germany was telling Mexico, Join us, and you’ll get Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico back.

But the telegram never became the diplomatic coup it was intended to be; instead, it was turned into the crux of a real-life spy thriller that sounds like something from John Buchan, or better yet, John le Carré. And it is the subject of Barbara Tuchman’s 1958 bestseller, The Zimmermann Telegram.

Like the best spy novels, Tuchman’s book is told from multiple points of view; it shifts location from London to Berlin to Washington to Mexico in a dizzying whirl of cross and double-cross, encoding and decoding lore, back-corridor negotiating and haggling; and it has a cast of high-profile, sometimes pompous, sometimes noble, sometimes risible characters that keeps the reader always guessing for motive and means.

decoded-message-l“The first message of the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual,” writes Tuchman at the start of her book. A classic sort of in medias res opener that is familiar from all good, fast-paced thrillers. I remember reading that sentence as a college student in a freshman modern European history survey course, and it hooked me. It still does. It was the first time I encountered hard-driving narrative history that could equal the best of fiction for pace and action.

The “message” in question, so innocent-seeming at first, is, of course the intercepted telegram sent by Zimmermann. The pneumatic tube spitting out its staple products is located in the ultra-secret Room 40 at British Naval Intelligence, the center of cryptanalysis for the Brits and run by the legendary Admiral William Reginald “Blinker” Hall. The folks in Room 40 are quickly able to decipher the telegram, as they have broken the German code. Soon analysts, strategists, and politicians in England will know they have geo-political gold: the smoking-gun evidence of evil intentions by the Kaiser and his cronies that will force the reluctant and insular Americans into the bloody fray of the First World War, and thereby end the deadly trench-war stalemate in Europe. (Ironically, in the Second World War the British trotted out a similar scenario–fabricated this time–prior to Pearl Harbor. A suddenly discovered German map displayed Mexico and the United States checkerboarded into German administrative districts, or Gau. This formed the basis of William Boyd’s 2006 novel, Restless.)

But now, as all good thriller writers do, Tuchman ups the stakes. There are complications upon complications. The British cannot simply hand over the decoded message to President Woodrow Wilson. First, they are guilty of poaching the telegram from a supposedly secure cable that Washington has established with Berlin in hopes of keeping peace communications open. Second, they do not want to let the Germans know they have cracked their code, in which case it will be changed and future valuable information will be lost. The British want their cryptographic pie and to eat it, as well.

Even as a fix is found for these early complications–fabrication of a tale that the

Willard Hotel, Washington, DC--scene of some of the action in THE GERMAN AGENT

Willard Hotel, Washington, DC–scene of some of the action in THE GERMAN AGENT

telegram has been discovered via the telegraph office in Mexico–others arise. Will the telegram be discounted as a forgery, a nefarious British invention by American isolationists such as Senator Robert La Follette? Can pro-war Americans such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and former President Theodore Roosevelt be counted on to back its authenticity? What will the anti-war Wilson do if and when the telegram is put into his hands?

Author Tuchman lets us see each of these characters in turn, using a few brisk and memorable words to fix them in our minds, as she does with Admiral Hall upon our first meeting, dubbing him “a demonic Mr. Punch in uniform.”

Meanwhile, the tide seems to be turning in Europe; resumption of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare could spell the end for the Allies, cut off from American aid. Can the telegram save the cause? Tuchman sets the clock ticking, and the reader feels the urgency, feels the anguished tug of war between competing agencies and governments, all after the American prize.

And then on April 2, 1917, the Allies won that prize, with the American declaration of war on Germany. Although many people blamed Germany’s torpedoing of civilian ships for Wilson’s agonized decision, Tuchman has gone behind the scenes to show us other reasons for U.S. involvement. Hers is a tale of conspiracy and deceit mixed with occasional splendid bravery that can serve as the model for any aspiring thriller writer.

Commenting on the importance of the incident, Tuchman notes in the last lines of her book: “In itself the Zimmermann telegram was only a pebble on the long road of history. But a pebble can kill a Goliath, and this one killed the American illusion that we could go about our business happily separate from other nations. In world affairs it was a German Minister’s minor plot. In the lives of the American people it was the end of innocence.”

A thriller with a message. Now, that is cause for celebration.

So how is it that a professional historian, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the author of such best-selling and critically acclaimed works as The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, A Distant Mirror, The March of Folly, Practicing History, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, was able to write such moving narrative history?

Well, because she was not a professional historian, not an academic. In a New York Times interview, Tuchman shared the secret of her success–she had never attended graduate school, content with a bachelor’s from Radcliffe: “It’s what saved me, I think. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.”

Amen to that.

barry-lancet-4-thumbBarry Lancet is the author of the Jim Brodie series of thrillers, featuring the Tokyo-based PI and antiques dealer. Lancet hit the ground running with the first novel in the series, Japantown, which was nominated for a Barry Award and selected as the Best Debut of the Year by Suspense Magazine in 2013. It was highly praised by critics. Booklist called it a “solid mystery with a memorable protagonist, the book captures our interest from the first page,” while the New York Times dubbed it a “sophisticated international thriller.” Japantown was also optioned for television by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros. Continue Reading »

indexGerman has a word for someone who exhibits this sort of behavior: Arschloch.

Mea culpa, I plead guilty to the symptoms of this malaise more than once in my life, but the one instance that sticks out most in memory is in the spring of 1969 on a trip to Berlin.

As in East Germany. Yes, that East Germany: Checkpoint Charlie, spies in trench coats and fedoras, the Wall, building facades pockmarked with artillery damage a quarter century after the end of World War II. After the Abu Ghraib photos and the NSA disclosures, the Cold War seems an almost romantic place. Nothing romantic about it, however, if you were on ground zero at the time.

Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War.

It was not a smart time for me to display my Arschloch side. Continue Reading »



I just learned that author Jim Thompson died in Finland on August 2. It’s a shocker and my thoughts go out to his wife. Jim was a long-time resident of Finland and penned four books in the popular Inspector Vaara series. The fifth, Helsinki Dead, was left unfinished at the time of his very untimely death at the age of 49. According to one Finnish source, James was apparently killed in an accident.

Born in Kentucky, Jim packed a lot into his all too short life. In addition to being a successful author, Jim had variously turned his hand to being a bartender, bouncer, construction worker, photographer, rare coin dealer, soldier and wrestling announcer. He earned a Master’s degree in English Philology from the University of Helsinki and spoke six languages.

I have run posts on Jim and his work a couple of times. As I recall, I was introduced to Jim and his work by Leighton Gage, another writer no longer with us. I find myself reverting to useless euphemisms at times like this; at times like this words don’t seem very useful. For a brief obit/bio, see this piece in the Helsinki Times.

We never met in person, but Jim was just one of those special people it was an honor to have known. He cared so very much about his craft and was savvy about the book business, kind to friends, and not one to suffer fools gladly.

I’ll miss him–I am sure there are a lot of you out there who will too.

img_0005Jason Goodwin is a British historian and author of the popular historical mystery novels featuring the eunuch detective Yashim and set in Istanbul during the early nineteenth century. The world of the Ottoman Empire figures importantly in the series, and Cambridge-educated Goodwin brings that world vividly to life in his novels, having already dealt with it in has narrative history, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. The Yashim series debut, The Janissary Tree, earned Goodwin an Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 2007.

Second in the series, The Snake Stone, won critical praise from many quarters. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio noted: “When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin, you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.” The Washington Post also commended that series addition, observing: “The real pleasure of The Snake Stone lies in its powerful evocation of the cultural melting pot that was nineteenth-century Istanbul. . . . Goodwin’s sharp eye combines with a poetic style to bring the city vividly to life.” Book three in the series, The Bellini Card, prompted laudatory words from Publishers Weekly: “Goodwin skillfully blends deduction, action sequences and period color.” The fourth series installment, An Evil Eye,was published in the spring of 2011, and Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful.” Continue Reading »

BreedingThe U.S. release of A Matter of Breeding, the fifth book in my Viennese Mysteries series, is now available. To celebrate its publication, the San Francisco Book Review features me in an extensive interview on the series and on writing historical fiction, as does the Big Thrill.

The novel also continues to garner strong reviews.

Publishers Weekly felt that this “solid fifth whodunit featuring lawyer Karl Werthen and real-life criminologist pioneer Hanns Gross … is one of the series’ best at combining plot and historical background.”

Kirkus Reviews also had praise for the novel, noting: “Turn-of-the-century Austria has its own homegrown Jack the Ripper, a killer with a cruelly creative streak and a disturbingly playful nature…. Jones adds a delicious historic perspective…, all presented with precision and panache.”

Here’s a brief summary of the book:

The fifth installment of the acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, A Matter of Breeding, finds lawyer and private inquiries agent Karl Werthen and his colleague, the criminologist Dr. Hanns Gross, investigating a series of grizzly murder/mutilations of young women in the Austrian province of Styria. The newspapers are touting Jewish blood ritual murders and vampirism, and Werthen and Gross–assisted by the Irish writer Bram Stoker who is in Austria to give a speech–battle against time to discover the real motive for such brutal and seemingly random killings. Meanwhile, Werthen’s wife, Berthe, has her own case to deal with. Commissioned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she is investigating a potential breeding scandal at the famous Lipizzaner stud. If the stud line has indeed been corrupted, this can prove to be more than a mere embarrassment for the Habsburgs, for the Lipizzaner blood line has been introduced to most of the royal stables of Europe. As these dual investigations proceed, it eventually becomes apparent that there is a connection between the two. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of breeding.

You can actually buy it now at Amazon or  at your favorite bookshop.

DeniseMinaTHUMBThey call it Tartan Noir, the Scots form of noir crime writing. And Glasgow crime writer Denise Mina is one of its major practitioners. Mina is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels: the three installments of the “Garnethill” trilogy featuring Maureen O’Donnell as an unwilling sleuth; three novels featuring Paddy Meehan, a journalist in 1980s and 1990s Glasgow; the stand-alone crime novel, Sanctum; the 2010 graphic novel, A Sickness in the Family; and contributions to the John Constantine, Hellblazer series.

Increasingly, however, Mina has become identified with her series of novels featuring Glasgow DI Alex Morrow: Still Midnight, The End of the Wasp Season, Gods and Beasts, and The Red Road. Writing in the New York Times Book Review of the last-named novel, released in the U.S. in 2014, Marilyn Stasio noted: “If anyone can make you root for the murderer, it’s Denise Mina, whose defiantly unsentimental novels are less concerned with personal guilt than with the social evils that create criminals and the predators who nurture them. . . [The Red Road is] as fierce a story as any Mina has written.” Publishers Weekly also had high praise for this installment, calling it “perhaps her finest yet, a brilliantly crafted tale of corruption, ruined lives, and the far-reaching ripple effects of crime.” n413367

Mina hit the ground running, winning the John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel in 1998 for Garnethill, the first of a trilogy of the same name. She was dubbed the “Crown Princess of Crime” by author Val McDermid, who went on to note, “”If you don’t love Denise Mina, you don’t love crime fiction.”  Mina has also earned praise from fellow Scots writer Ian Rankin, who called her “one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years.” She has since been a finalist for the Edgar and the recipient of the 2012 Theakstons Old Peculier crime novel of the year award (for The End of the Wasp Season), beating out such formidable competition as John Connolly. Continue Reading »


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